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Diversonomics | Season 2 Episode 5 - Re-training the brain (Pt 2): Employee-employer dynamics when dealing with concussion

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October 31, 2017

PODCAST SUMMARY: In part 1, we spoke with Gowling WLG lawyer Jane Clark about her return to work process post-concussion. In part 2, host Roberto Aburto sits down with his wife Carrie-Anne Bourassa, a civil litigation lawyer who previously suffered a concussion and has since returned to work full time. Listen as she delves deeper into the employee-employer dynamic when it comes to dealing with concussions.

Episode tip

“I think it's important for employers to start from the presumption that it's going to work out. That your employee is going to recover and they're going to be able to come back and be as productive as they were before.” — Carrie-Anne Bourassa, civil litigation counsel

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Accredited CPD LogoThis podcast will count for up to 15 minutes of Professionalism credit toward the mandatory CPD requirements of the Law Society of Upper Canada (subject to the LSUC’s overall limit of 6 hours per year for viewing archived video programs). 

This organization has been approved as an Accredited Provider of Professionalism Content by the Law Society of Upper Canada.

Resources

Episode hosts

Roberto Aburto

Roberto Aburto is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in municipal law and civil litigation, with a focus on real estate disputes, land use planning law and commercial litigation.

He is also an active member in the swimming and lifesaving community, serving on the board of directors for the Lifesaving Society (Ontario Branch) as the corporate secretary/legal adviser, and on the Lifesaving Society (National Branch) National Team Selection Committee for Lifesaving Sport.

He is also co-chair of Gowling WLG's Diversity and Inclusion Council and is committed to promoting these principles.

To learn more about Roberto, visit his bio or connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

Sarah Willis

Sarah Willis is an associate in Gowling WLG's Ottawa office, practising in the areas of commercial and civil litigation, and medical defence law. Sarah also has ecommercial and civil litigation experience in a variety of areas, including contractual and construction law disputes, tort actions, and small claims court claims. While in law school, Sarah was an oralist in the 2013 Willms and Shier Environmental Law Moot competition, sat as an executive on the Women and Law Association, and was the vice-president of the class of 2013 council in her final year.

To learn more about Sarah, visit her bio or connect with her on LinkedIn.

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Podcast transcript

Roberto:      Welcome to Diversonomics. The podcast about diversity and inclusion in the legal market. I'm Roberto Aburto flying solo as your host today here in Ottawa at Gowling WLG. This is our second part on concussions. We have someone that I hold in very high regard. She practices in litigation and is a 2014 call. She was a classmate of my co-host Sarah's but also is my wife. Welcome Carrie-Anne Bourassa.

Carrie-Anne:   Hi. Happy to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

Roberto:      What kind of law do you practice?

Carrie-Anne:   I'm a civil litigator.

Roberto:      Something I'm very aware of is that you had a concussion and that has been a challenge at times. I'm sure that that's given you some insight. What advice do you have for employers for working with employees when they have concussions?

Carrie-Anne:   Right. So, I'd like to answer your question in two parts. Because, one of the things that this experience has really taught me is that none of us are immune. We're not immune from illness. We're not immune from having a concussion. I got my concussion horseback riding but a lot of people I know who have concussions that are just as serious, or significantly more serious than mine was, you know they just fell on the ice outside and hit their head. So, none of us are immune from this type of injury or really any injury. I think that the best thing that we can all do, and employers can do, is to start thinking about how we're going to deal with the situation before it happens. For example, I think that a lot of large firms and government employers do a good job of this, but when you're thinking about how you're going to accommodate an employee if they potentially become ill in the future, it can be helpful to provide benefits to your employees. Provide a benefit package that includes long term disability benefits. Provide permanent stable jobs to your employees so that they're actually an employee who's paying into EI, who has these safeguards. Sometimes that's not possible. The practice of law is evolving and the economy is evolving and there is a lot of people working as contractors or not in a permanent positions. I think that we need to be a little bit more creative in terms of how we set ourselves up for success. If you're hiring people on as a contractor, for example, it might be helpful to turn your mind to how that person can mitigate the risk of being affected by something that's going to take them out of work. How can you help them mitigate that risk and there may be ways to do that. They may be able to buy their own benefits. They may be able to pay into EI on their own accord. These types of things I think that employers should be thinking about when they set up their practice and you can have those conversations with people who are going to be working for you and see if there are creative ways to provide those kinds of safeguards even when the employment relationship isn't necessarily your typical employee/employer relationship where you're able to provide those benefits. I think thinking about how we can accommodate people before it happens is a really good step. If you have safeguards in place then that's going to make it easier for everyone because I think most people want to help their employees through a difficult time, the people that are working for them. That's going to be a lot easier if we turned our minds to it ahead of time and tried to mitigate those risks before they happen.

I know you asked me how employers can accommodate people who have concussions so the second part of my answer is a little more of a direct answer to that question. I think that the most difficult thing about concussions for employees and employers is that it's very difficult to tell in advance how long it's going to take to recover and how that recovery is going to look. However, as Jane mentioned, I heard Jane's conversation with you in the podcast, as she mentioned most of do recover. The vast majority of people with concussions go back to full time work and completely recover. I think it's important for employers to start from the presumption that it's going to work out. That your employee is going to recover and they're going to be able to come back and be as productive as they were before. And, you know, stick with your employee. It can take a bit of patience but don't give up them. Because the vast majority of people will recover. That's what happened for me. I am working full time and able to work as hard as I want to work. For most of us, thankfully, that is what happens.

Roberto:      Yeah, it's true. When we had Jane on I know she was fairly frank about some of the challenges that she had. It was important to her to make sure that we were still making clear the message that most people do have a chance to come back, and that with a little accommodation along the way, that can help speed it up sometimes.

Carrie-Anne:   That's right. It can help speed it up and you can make it work.  You can make it work and most of us can come back so you don't want to write people off and assume that they're not going to get back to where they were. Or they're not going to be as productive or as useful in your organization. Most people will come back and they will be as useful, if not more than useful, or they'll continue to improve and develop their careers. I'm very happy and fortunate that that is what happened for me. I'm able to continue to develop as a lawyer and I feel very back on track. I think it's important for everyone to remember that most of the time that's what happens and that's peoples goals are. That's everyone's goal. Usually it's achievable.

Roberto:      For those who have suffered concussions do you have any advice?

Carrie-Anne:   As I said, what's difficult is knowing how the recovery process is going to look. I think that patience is important. The recovery process and the return to work process is sometimes not very linier so the employee may come back to work and then have to take some additional time off. But that doesn't mean that they're not recovering or they're not going to get better. That's quite normal. You might want to just think about what can you do to provide tasks that are going to be conducive to recovery. For example, it may be too difficult right after a major concussion to take on extensive file management, but it might be more appropriate to do discreet tasks like writing a particular fact down or arguing a particular motion. You want to just work with your employees to figure out what kinds of task are best for them as they're recovering.

Roberto:      It's certainly not a one size fits all, right? I mean, sometimes some people have more in terms of light sensitivity, sometimes it might be noise. It can be different symptoms.

Carrie-Anne:   One of the sort of common issues is environmental factors so light, noise, distraction. Those are all things that are quite easy, I think in the practice of law at least, is to accommodate. Fluorescent lighting tends to be a big problem for a lot of us so just making sure that your employee has a space with either natural lighting or they can choose the lighting. Noise can be an issue so making sure that your employee has a quiet place to work. It can be helpful to work from home, some or all of the time, during the recovery period so that the employee can completely control the environment. That can make a huge difference. That can make a really huge difference in your day. There's a lot of really easy and inexpensive things that you can do to accommodate your employee.

Roberto:      I guess part of that process makes sense is talking to the employee. I mean, they're probably learning about what their symptoms are even as it goes as well.

Carrie-Anne:   That's right. And the symptoms change over time so the needs can change over time. But working with your employee, and I know for me it really helped me to have a really good physiotherapist who had a lot of really good ideas, having done this before a billion times with other people. Hopefully your employee finds someone, a good physiotherapist or occupational therapist, that can help them be more creative in how they approach their own work and how they come up with solutions as well. I think the employee and the employer both need to participate in the process to figure out how to make it work. That's definitely something that can be done.

Roberto:      For those who have suffered concussions do you have any advice?

Carrie-Anne:   I do. I think my first piece of advice is to be  patient with yourself. Don't stress too much about some of the time that you have to take off and having to change the way you practice for the period of time that you're recovering. Having a concussion early in my career cause me a lot of stress and I worried a lot about how it might impact my career in the long term. However, looking back on it, the best thing that I could do was to take the time that I needed to recover and I did that. Now I'm continuing to have a very interesting and fulfilling career. For other young lawyers who may be in this same situation don’t give up on yourself either. It's going to be okay. I think, as well, having a concussion can be really isolating. Because stimuli like light, noise, etc. can be a challenge you end up spending a lot of time in your early recovery at home in a quite dark room. That can be really isolating. I think it's really helpful to try and find other people who've been through the same experience and speak to them and find out what kind of advice they have. I spoke with a lot of other lawyers who had concussions who had similar situations and that really helped me. It helped me just to have that support. It also helped me just to get more creative. I needed to come up with solutions for my own self and for my ability to practice law. I ended up doing some freelance legal research during my recovery period which was something that allowed me to continue to work in my field, to recover and to make some money and to have some more work on my resume. I got that idea from some of these other people that I spoke with who'd been through similar experiences. Don't isolate yourself, reach out and speak to other people, be patient and for anyone who's listening who has a concussion, I really hope that you can get the help that you need.

Roberto:      We heard last time from Jane Clark about the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute. Why did you decide to become involved in their concussion injury group?

Carrie-Anne:   I decided to become involved in the concussion injury group because it might be an opportunity for me to give back to other people who are experiencing the same thing that I went through. I know that the goals of the organization are really important. For example, one of the things that the group is working on is trying to ensure that people with concussions know where to go for treatment and have that information and don't have to wait. We want to eliminate the wait time for specialized treatment for  people with concussions. That's something that I think is really important that our health care system can really improve. Happy to participate in the group and if anyone's interested I definitely encourage you to check it out.

Roberto:      How can people with concussions, their employers and support networks learn more about concussions?

Carrie-Anne:   You want to get a specialist. You definitely want to get a doctor who specializes in concussions because there are a lot of different types of treatment that are not necessarily well known. For me I'll give a shout out to my doctor. I went to the Carlton University Sports Medical Clinic and I see Dr. Taylor and she's excellent and very well connected in the concussion community. Talk to people. See if you can meet with a specialist or a doctor who has a special interest in this area and try to get that help. You really need to kind of get out there and advocate for yourself a bit which, luckily, many of us in the practice of law are used to doing.

Roberto:      Awesome. Thank you so much for taking the time today Carrie-Anne.

Carrie-Anne:   You're welcome.

Roberto:      Good. And for our listeners we are looking for your involvement. If you ever have any questions, comments or ideas for topics and guests please look me up at gowlingwlg.com or Sarah Willis as well and get in touch with us. We'd love to hear from you. Also make sure to check out the show notes for this episode at gowlingwlg.com/diversonomics11. Last, but not least, make sure to subscribe on iTunes. Don't miss an episode and leave us a review. You can also follow me on Twitter @robaburto. If you want to learn more about the University of Ottawa Brain and Mind Research Institute, and it's concussion injury group, their website is uottawa.ca/brain. Diversonomics was presented to you by Gowling WLG and produced by Jessica Bowman.


NOT LEGAL ADVICE. Information made available on this website in any form is for information purposes only. It is not, and should not be taken as, legal advice. You should not rely on, or take or fail to take any action based upon this information. Never disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking legal advice because of something you have read on this website. Gowling WLG professionals will be pleased to discuss resolutions to specific legal concerns you may have.

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